Toronto streets make jazz not classical music and they speak to inherent resilience
Toronto’s neighbourhood streets are not often conventionally pretty or elegant but they make beautiful music in their own way. Many began life with a housing stock which was sober, restrained and repetitive with few materials, a limited colour palette and few design flourishes. These workman-like solid dwellings housed a society which was relatively homogeneous, living in ways that were fairly common to most and outwardly at least, prim and controlled.
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That was the starting point for these neighbourhood streets but they have since evolved to exhibit startling variety as new waves of inhabitants have transformed their individual dwellings. And as our city has diversified socially so has the personality and appearance of our streets. Re-workings, additions, contractions, new colours, cladding, window treatments, railings, porches or lack thereof, fences and especially front gardens have become intensely personal expressions of the inhabitants of each lot. The transformations and adaptations of the interiors of the houses have been equally pervasive as lifestyles and needs have shifted and households changed. Walking on these streets we can literally read these stories of adaptation. As this happens what we are witnessing is the emergence of a new kind of multi-lingual Toronto vernacular. Added to individual preferences is an overlay of tastes, desires, needs, aspirations and cultural interpretations of the meaning of home that reflects all the places their occupants have come from and their changing needs.
There are cycles of change as use and occupation have ebbed and waned, periods of thinning and thickening. When I arrived in Toronto the Annex was a place of student rooming houses , then single family dweliings again with new affluence, and now doubling up again in new nore affordable ways with multi-generational households, new forms of sharihng – co-livinng arrangements among unrealted people and seniors getting together to form households. Necessity has been the mother of invention as this housing stock has continued to demonstrate remakable adapatability.
Clearly some rules and guidelines are needed to ward off ungainly monster houses, or wholesale transformations of streets into parking lots with parking pads on every front garden. It is not a complete free for all. Zoning issues are adjudicated in Committee of Adjustment hearings (I served on the Committee for four years long ago) but by and large in a remarkable spirit of ‘live and let live’, each owner has been allowed self-expression inside the property line as long as he or she did not impinge on their neighbours. Over time what has emerged is a new Toronto ‘look’ and feel and an esthetic which is unabashedly eclectic, rich, and gloriously exuberant. It is untamed and at first glance perhaps messy and chaotic. It certainly defeats any preconceived notion of order or uniformity.
This patchwork quilt look is the perfect expression of our increasingly heterogeneous polyglot population. The floodgates are open testing our notion beauty itself, now longer about order and harmony but a vivid demonstration of life asserting itself and showing us how a dynamic city appears in its perpetually unfinished work-in-progress state. The pediments, dormers and trim are sometimes mismatched from lot to lot with odd juxtapositions of form and colour. The front lawns where everyone was once under peer pressure to keep the grass neatly trimmed have sprouted an infinite variety of gardens for vegetables or flowers, tiny kingdoms of self-expression from wild to manicured, hard and soft. It is the edgy kaleidoscopic expression of transformation as a collage by many hands not the come-to-rest end state image with a singular idea.
Like improvised jazz there is an element of surprise as riffs are taken by soloists but there is also a framework of understood norms and relationships, the rhythm section of streets, blocks and lanes which provides the glue and coherence that ties the whole together. The most important takeaway is that difference is OK and we have moved from tolerance to embrace of those differences, from ourselves to our built environment. This eclecticism is energizing and stimulating and something to celebrate as long as there is mutual respect very like our ability to enjoy living together in a city where some may wear turbans, hijabs or kippahs without feeling identity loss or to benefit from the greatly enriched menu of food choices now available to us.
This is not only about the ‘look and feel’ of these neighbourhood streets, however. Something deeper is also at play in the process of adaptation. A major issue we now face is affordability and how to make a city which can continue to accommodate diversity in all respects by tapping a built in capacity for the adaptation of these neighbourhoods by their occupants in many cases to absorb more residents.
The challenge is can we bring some of these self-adaptive strategies to increase housing supply and deliver more affordable housing into the newer neighbourhoods which had zoned them out and in ones yet to be built. In pursuit of efficiencies in scale and uniformity of appearance and occupancy we often created enclaves of likeness in terms of class and income and diminished the ability of inhabitants to modify their living environments to meet changing needs, household sizes, or to share their spaces.
Through simple but contextually attuned interventions, one finds unexpected beauty beneath all that concrete mass. Pockets that are further from noisy traffic are programmed as quieter, landscaped retreats. Seating areas—whose moveable furnishings can make way for performances—are strategically positioned to take advantage of the best light. In rare moments, the sunshine pours down like honey, with warm shafts of light shining through the bents. Above, each of the bents is numbered, drawing the eye along the rhythmic concrete supports with a simple and powerful placemaking gesture.
Native plantings and a prominent wooden boardwalk are refreshingly earthy counterparts to the Gardiner’s hulking concrete supports. Many of the planters are made from weathering steel, creating aesthetic continuity with the Fort York Visitors Centre. The Bentway also offers improved pedestrian connections to Strachan Avenue and June Callwood Park. It will eventually link to the future West Block development and Mouth of Garrison Creek Trail.
The Bentway makes some more subtle connections to its surroundings, such as a narrow garden alongside the skate path that traces Lake Ontario’s former shoreline. The proximity of Fort York invites historical references, including a small garden named the American Invasion. Massive texts emblazoned across several of the concrete bents also recall the opening of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1856.
Across from Fort York, in much smaller script, a text of a different sort is printed on one of the pillars at eye level. It’s a quote from the late historian and civic activist Stephen Otto: “The Gardiner is an alien. It doesn’t belong where it is.”
Otto’s declaration invites one to look beyond a superficially pleasant catalogue of the past. Even while enjoying the space, one might pause to consider the troubled reality that makes it possible. The presence of an elevated expressway in downtown Toronto remains dispiritingly misguided, particularly when one contrasts the billions spent maintaining it with the $25-million donation that spurred the creation of a public pedestrian space below. What does that say about our civic priorities?
The space’s current set of public art installations pushes the cultural dialogue further. Curated by The Bentway Conservancy (a non-profit agency that manages the project’s programming) the exhibition If, But, What If? looks to both the past and the future. Wally Dion’s striking 8-Bit Wampum interprets the surrender of land by the Mississaugas of the New Credit to the British Crown, while Sans façon’s Iconic Site (#5) playfully teases out the contradictions of The Bentway’s own unconventional popularity. Spelling out the words “Iconic Site” in red neon, the work explores the tension of creating a landmark public space on a discarded scrap of urban land. For three nights in October, artist Daan Roosegaarde’s Waterlicht transformed the space with a strange and haunting beauty, immersing its 25,000 viewers in blue light and fog.
As a mostly linear space, The Bentway makes for a somewhat unconventional event and exhibition venue. And yet, in addition to its public art program, it has already played host to everything from concerts to yoga lessons, a beer garden, and a swimsuits-and-knickers polar bear skate. For any public space, relying on a constant stream of programming is an inherent risk. If the novelty wears off, or funding slows, a park or square can feel like an empty husk. But The Bentway is a good public space first, and an event venue second. Even with nothing going on, the place is enticing. It’s also necessary.
Situated at the nexus of several rapidly expanding downtown communities, The Bentway adjoins neighbourhoods including CityPlace, Liberty Village, and the Entertainment District—areas hemmed in by rail corridors. As these places gain in population density, their paucity of public space is keenly felt. The need for urban parkland in Toronto is becoming increasingly urgent. Meeting that need requires new ways of understanding the potential of infrastructural spaces. The type of leftover land that forms The Bentway will need to be found—in different forms—city-wide. In Scarborough, the planned 16-kilometre Meadoway aims to reclaim a power corridor, while the Rail Deck Park concept imagines a green space ambitiously built over a downtown rail corridor.
More immediately, The Bentway’s popularity evidences our hunger for public life. Its success is a paean to the importance of landscape architecture and urban design. Build something good, and people will come.